The first fish? Across the country it is very likely the spunky, tasty bluegill. Its sheer numbers, its long spawning period, its propensity for striking fresh bait, a wiggly lure or even a fly, and its incredible strength for its size, all add up to a fish no angler can look down upon.
From 5-year-olds on their very first fishing adventure to crafty, hardened bass or trout anglers, the bluegill finds a soft spot in their fishing bones.
Unlike a gaggle of other sunfish species—pumpkinseeds, crappie, bream and red-ears topping the list—bluegills range across a wider swath of the country than some of these other sunfish.
Though generally small as adult fish, from 5-7 inches long on average, the occasional 10 inch+ giant can be found in some lakes and ponds. When battling one of these on light gear, you quickly gain the sense that per ounce, the bluegill is one of the strongest freshwater fighters to be found.
- Bluegill Bio: How to Tell It From Its Cousins
- How to Rig Up for Bluegill
- Go Light With Rod and Reel
- Fly Fishing for Bluegill
- Want to try something completely different?
- Line, Weight, Bobbers, Hooks, Lures
- Best Live Bait for Bluegill
- Where to Fish for Bluegill
- When to Fish Bluegill
- Finally, Don’t Be a Hog
Bluegill Bio: How to Tell It From Its Cousins
Scientific name: Lepomis macrochirus
Bluegills are also commonly referred to as bream, brim or copper nose.
Sunfish come in many shades and markings. Here is how to identify the Bluegill:
- The most discernible characteristics identifying a bluegill include its dark-blue, almost violet spot gracing the rear of the gill—looking like an ear flap—on each side of the fish.
- A mix of olive-green and copper covers its main body and, especially when spawning, it features an orange-to-red swash extending from throat to belly.
- Somewhat like smallmouth bass, the bluegill feature vertical stripes that generally extend a greater length on the female than the male.
All sunfish look like you could skip them across the water like a flat rock if you turned them sideways. They are disk-shaped and often as deep as they are long. Also, a bluegill’s pectoral fins extend longer than other sunfish.
How to Rig Up for Bluegill
The bluegill owes its sportiness and appeal to the variety of ways an angler can catch them.
From nightcrawlers, to crickets, to meal worms, to small spinners and even flies, the bluegill will indulge as long as it can stretch its tiny mouth around your offering.
Anglers also love this fish because they can use ultralight gear without fear of hooking a monster. Light gear also maximizes the joy of feeling every ounce of fight in this scrappy sunfish.
Go Light With Rod and Reel
An ultralight, graphite rod of 5 to 6 feet proves perfect. You can use a bait-casting rod and reel, but most anglers prefer a spinning outfit because manufacturers design this style of gear lighter and smaller than bait-casting rigs.
A small reel with no more than 100-150 yards of line capacity works fine. You don’t need a long handle section in these instances or even weighty reel seats. Almost any light configuration of reel locks suffices.
Fly Fishing for Bluegill
If fly fishing, a 6-7 footer rated for 3 or 4 weight fly line brings out the most in a tussle with this mighty mite. You need not worry about a large arbor or gears in your reel for faster retrieve.
You mostly fish in relatively shallow water with flies unless you are trolling or searching for bluegills outside of the spawning periods. In shallow water of 1 to 6 feet, a full floating line can suffice.
If trying to cut them off at the pass during their pre-spawn migration from deep to the shallows, a sinking tip might be in order, same as it would if dragging your fly pattern behind a boat or float tube.
Want to try something completely different?
Go with a rig from the bygone days of fishing: a cane pole. When these fish flood the backwaters, small inlets and similar shallows when about to spawn, the cane pole method shines.
You can drop the bait into those pockets between weedy cover at the precise depth needed with a long cane pole. Just hoist them up and virtually swing them into your cooler or creel.
Line, Weight, Bobbers, Hooks, Lures
Because most anglers fish for bluegills during their extremely active and long spawning season, these slab-sides largely hang out in water of 1 to 15 feet deep and where it is clear enough to effectively spawn. Therefore, bluegills easily spook.
They also rate high on the food chain of bigger spiny rays such as bass, adding to their inborn impulse to flee from larger shadows or profiles.
To keep from scaring these pan-fry morsels, go really light with line, weight and hook.
Line test in the 4-6 pound test zone proves ample for presentation and any aquatic growth or snags that might find your hook. If fishing deep for big bluegills before or after spawning, the heavier end of this line range works fine.
During the spawning season, usually from May until nearly autumn—depending on the size of the water body you fish—you can effectively use bobbers, even without a split-shot weight attached below.
A large earthworm often provides enough weight to reach shallows up to 10 feet deep and nothing fools a fish better than a natural looking free-fall into the water.
Otherwise, a split shot or two—depending on current and wind—with a swivel works well when bait fishing.
Swimmer jigs and similar plastics of 1/16 to 1/4 oz. also fool this combative fish in its spawning habitat. Again, current and wind will determine the best jig or lure weight.
Hooks should not exceed size 6. Shrink it down to 8 or 10 in most cases to accommodate the small mouths of these sunfish.
If fishing a lure during spawning season, when even crankbaits can actually catch a bluegill, the hook size becomes less critical because many bluegill strike anything looking like a threat to the nest. Obviously, lures with bass-sized hooks become impractical.
Best Live Bait for Bluegill
The difference between one bait fisher’s cooler and the cooler of another bait angler often hinges on the freshness and liveliness of the bait.
Never underestimate the condition of your bait when seeking sunfish of any kind.
Be sure to keep your nightcrawlers in moderately moist soil and in the cooler. Make sure they get ample air. An active, fresh nightcrawler always wins the day, no matter what type of fish you seek.
As for minnows or even portions of them for hook tipping, keep the fish well oxygenated in the live well. The fish will appear livelier and fresher in the water.
Especially in many farm ponds, not frequented by anglers for weeks sometimes, almost any bait works. Fish are as hungry as a stray cat. This angler has even caught them with bacon, fried and raw. Regardless, earthworms, crickets or other types of worms can’t be beat.
Where to Fish for Bluegill
First, don’t mistakenly equate bluegill fishing to only small-water fishing. Ponds and small lakes prove ideal for catching bluegill, but you are missing significant action if you exclude large lakes and reservoirs or even slow-moving rivers characteristic of the East, Midwest and South.
Because ponds can’t overcome the rate of weed growth as effectively as bigger waters where the oxygen-to-nitrogen ratio takes longer to shrink, your No. 1 obstacle in the typical farm pond will be weeds and algae spurred by an overrun of nitrogen.
Some pond owners install oxygenators to aid the fish population and essentially keep weeds from interfering with angling over a longer period than normal.
To combat the fast growth of vegetation in ponds, bobbers and weightless lines become your best friends.
If the weed or algae beds are restricted to the surface and not rooted to the bottom, then you can attach a weight to bring the bait below the surface mass to debris-free depths. This can be done with bobber or without one.
When pond fishing, you hardly need a raft or boat, but if you prefer such, go for it.
As for lakes, work either baits or lures, sometimes tipped with bait. Lakes provide several different approaches by boat and from shore.
During periods around the spawning season, a boat becomes most advantageous. Bluegills wait for the shallows to warm sufficiently before setting up their spawning nests.
Generally, the water must reach the upper 60s Fahrenheit for successful spawning. Of course, shallow water warms faster, resulting in a mass migration to such shallows.
Essentially, bluegills move in stages toward these shallows in pre-spawn season. Some of the bigger bluegills, for instance will come from quite deep, protective waters in a methodical fashion—perhaps increments of 10 feet of water at a time.
Smaller bluegills quite often station themselves in water of less than 20 feet deep—in closer proximity to the spawning zone. Their route to spawning therefore constitutes a blitz more than a gradual approach.
Therefore, if you want larger bluegills, navigate your boat over many expanses of the lake or reservoir. This can be greatly aided by a good fish finder but the manual approach also works.
- Pay attention to the depth of your bait or lure when catching the first bluegill.
- Apply that depth to other areas of the lake as you try to intercept these fish en route to their nesting grounds.
- Try to identify their migrating slots, in other words.
During early spring and into the depths of autumn this approach must be applied as well because the spawning season is long expired.
Another advantage to fishing from a boat?
Its accessibility to waters less pummeled. A lot of private docks, inlets, bays and even backwaters far from the public shorelines can be covered by watercraft.
Bluegills in these places are not as spooky as in heavily fished portions of lakes or reservoirs. Don’t pass up these nooks and crannies.
During winter, these fish become less active, of course. However, they cluster and school at this time. You will find them stratified in waters considerably deeper than the spawning shallows of summer.
Once you land your first bluegill, stay put. When the bite stops, look for the next bluegill stack.
In rivers, fish where current is blocked or almost non-existent. Like any fish, bluegills don’t like to struggle with current all day.
They like to hang near vegetation or woody debris where smaller life—i.e., food—dwells. If current moves some bait, they will hang in a depression or behind an obstacle next to the slot and attack from their hideout.
When to Fish Bluegill
Of course, the spawning season—late spring to fall—can’t be beat for ease of catching and volume of catching. But, remember that all bluegills must move from one piece of water toward the shallow, 60-plus-degree water to propagate.
When bluegills move their stations closer and closer to the spawning water, they do this in phases. They are also working up appetites as they move.
If you can find the routes that bulks of bluegills use on their way to those particularly inviting spawning haunts, you can enjoy bites as furious as any found in the shallows during spawning season.
When fishing during spawning season, you should seek waters of 1-10 feet in depth.
Little bays and inlets or benches and shelves provide prime habitat. You don’t need to “fish around” as much during these months.
These fish bite more strongly in the morning and pre-dusk than other times of day, not unlike other species. The food they feast upon is more active at these hours, resulting in equally active bluegills.
However, any time of day holds potential as bluegill-catching time. Just watch for the shadows you cast on the water during daylight and look for shadowy haunts where the bluegill feels more protected.
Finally, Don’t Be a Hog
Because they appear so numerous and bite so readily, many anglers mistakenly assume this species of fish are so numerous they earn the rank of nuisance at times.
Not so. Bluegills are actually overfished in many waters, particularly those just west and east of the Mississippi River.
They become their own worst enemy in one instance. Imposter adults actually sneak into nests to fertilize a full adult’s eggs.
This results in a less hardy strain of bluegill, more vulnerable to environmental threats than those fertilized by a fully developed, strong bull male. The size of bluegills ultimately decrease noticeably in these waters.
Be sure to not overfish. Take home fewer fish than the limit allows. By not overfishing, you can ensure that the bulls and chunky bluegills maintain healthy populations.
Indeed, if your cooler already holds a couple of giant bluegills, release unharmed the rest of the big bulls you hook.